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Making a show of it: a look at the rising trend that sees art buyers creating their own museums

Why open a private museum? The short answer is that more people in more places are buying more art.
Clark Art Institute in Williamstown Massachusetts. Jeff Goldberg / Esto / Clark Art Institute
Clark Art Institute in Williamstown Massachusetts. Jeff Goldberg / Esto / Clark Art Institute

It is one thing to buy works of art at record prices, season after season. It is another thing entirely to acquire so much art that you can open your own museum – and, in some cases, several of them.

The Bourse de Commerce, for example, the historic former stock exchange in Paris, is being transformed into a museum to host the collection of François Pinault, a timber tycoon who already has two private galleries in Venice to display his extensive art holdings.

It means Pinault, who also owns Christie’s auction house, will soon have his art on display within walking distance of the Louvre.

The 4,000 square metres of galleries in the 18th-century monument will be designed by the Japanese architect Tadao Ando, who also reconfigured Pinault’s Punta della Dogana gallery, which was formerly Venice’s customs building. Pinault has yet to reveal what he will show at the Bourse.

In New York, meanwhile, collector J Tomilson Hill will open a two-storey, 600-square-metre museum next year, in an apartment building called “The Getty”, where he will exhibit modern and contemporary works, Old Master paintings and renaissance bronzes.

Hill, vice-chairman of the Blackstone Group (whose combed-back hair inspired the coif of Gordon Gecko in the 1987 Oliver Stone movie Wall Street), is a benefactor of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, aka the Met.

A billionaire, he could probably have his name on the wall in any major gallery – but the private-equity magnate told The New York Times recently: “I’m not into wings, I’m into art.” 

Hill is known for showing renaissance and baroque sculptures alongside modern paintings, a blend of periods that might not sit well with many museum curators. By opening his own museum, he gets to decide what is on view.

So does Viktor Vekselberg, in St Petersburg. His minerals fortune places him among the ranks of rich Russians who are buying back art and other objects that were dispersed abroad.

He paid US$100 million in 2004 for nine Fabergé eggs owned by Malcolm Forbes, the late owner of Forbes magazine – which ranks Vekselberg as 98th on its list of the world’s richest people.

Vekselberg exhibits those eggs, and about 4,000 other objects from his collection, in Shuvalov Palace, which he bought, renovated and renamed the Fabergé Museum.

Why open a private museum? The short answer is that more people in more places are buying more art.

Vanity can be as strong a motivation as generosity. After all, part of the thrill of acquiring art at auction is having one’s peers witness it.

Collectors usually hope that their art will be seen after they buy it. Yet the paradox is that even as traditional museums depend on these private collectors for loans and gifts, they can only show a fraction of the art that they borrow or receive as donations.

Building private galleries guarantees that the art you own will be on show. In the US and Europe, there can also be tax advantages in donating art to your own private foundation that exhibits it – and politicians love museums that don’t need any tax money.  

If the private museum feels like a trend, it is not a new one. As long as art has been acquired, collectors have built places to display it – and these days, rich collectors have far more money to buy art than museums do. Some of those who created museums – the dealer Ernst Beyeler in Switzerland and the Egon Schiele collector Rudolf Leopold in Vienna, for example – were simply being more true to their own calling than to existing institutions.

The private-museum bug has also extended to the Arabian Gulf. Iranian petrochemicals consultant and contemporary art collector Ramin Salsali has been acquiring pieces, including paintings and photographs, since he was in his twenties and has displayed them in his Salsali Private Museum in Al Quoz since 2011.

“I didn’t want to have a curator and I didn’t want to have a catalogue,” he told The National when the museum opened.

“I wanted to keep it as simple as possible in order to show other collectors, who may be afraid to do the same, how easy it is to do it. This is the beauty of a private museum – you don’t have to explain yourself to anyone, you should enjoy the art that you have as if you are at home.”

In Kuwait, Islamic-art lovers can visit the Tareq Rajab Museum of Islamic Calligraphy in Kuwait City, which holds thousands of calligraphic pieces. According to the museum, the earliest piece on display is a script dating back to the 7th century.  

In the US, where museums often bear the names of captains of industry – such as Carnegie, Frick, Morgan and Getty – the challenges for these private museums come when those founders are no longer around.

In the 1920s, the patent-medicine tycoon Albert C Barnes of Philadelphia put his collection of post-Impressionist paintings and African sculptures in galleries outside of the city limits, where he oversaw courses in art appreciation.

Only rarely were visitors allowed access, until after Barnes’s death in 1951. No works were loaned out or reproduced in colour. Barnes’s own wall arrangements were sacrosanct.

By the early 1990s, the Barnes Foundation was admitting visitors three days a week, for a one-dollar entry fee. At that time, a new administration took control of the foundation, with ambitions to sell paintings to raise millions. The sales were thwarted, but the new regime overspent to override the foundation’s rules and organise a world tour of masterpieces.

When the Barnes ran out of money, local philanthropists and politicians saw a potential bonanza in relocating it to central Philadelphia.

Housed in a new building, the Barnes is now a tourist magnet – and the wishes of its founder just a dim and distant memory.

Not all collections run into such problems. One that evolved and flourished after its founder’s passing is the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute.

In the 1950s, with Cold War tensions running high, Sterling Clark, heir to a sewing-machine fortune, sought a home for his collection of Renoirs and Old Masters outside the radius of a nuclear blast, should Manhattan be attacked.

He chose Williamstown, Massachusetts, 100 miles north of New York City, as the location for a neoclassical temple – complete with an underground vault to protect his art in case of atomic war.

Clark died a year after his galleries opened in 1955 (he fared better than J Paul Getty, who did not live to see the museum that bears his name). Since then, the collection has grown. New galleries by Tadao Ando, which the Clark opened last summer, now host paintings loaned from the Prado in Madrid, all of which came from the private collection of King Philip II and Philip IV of Spain, known as the “saga ­reservada”.

In Los Angeles, a relatively new city, better known for Kardashians than Caravaggios, private museums have defined the cultural landscape for generations.

Institutions are named for tycoons such as Henry E Huntington (railroads), J Paul Getty (petroleum), Norton Simon (mergers and acquisitions) and, most recently, Eli Broad (construction and property). Two museums bear Broad’s name, and there could be more to come.

Then there is the Hammer Museum, described as “the vainest” of America’s museums by Time magazine critic Robert Hughes, after he learnt that its namesake, entrepreneur Armand Hammer, paid for the US$100 million (Dh367m) building with funds from stockholders of the firm that he led, Occidental Petroleum.

To fend off any legal threats, the Hammer Museum sold a Leonardo da Vinci Codex to Microsoft founder Bill Gates for $30.8 million. The museum has thrived thanks to the interest on that windfall.  

Fate was not so kind, however, to Tamir Sapir, a Georgian immigrant who drove a taxi in New York before he built a property empire. In 2006, he spent $40m on a brick palace across from the Met, on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue, for a museum to house his vast ivory collection.

Sadly, his American dream ended with the early onset of senility. He died in 2014 at the age of 67. 

A good rule of thumb might be that any private museum is only as viable and enduring as the fortune behind it – which would be good news for Pinault in Paris and Hill in New York.

For Vekselberg in St Petersburg, his current challenge is an embarrassment of riches – though another Russian oligarch, Alexander Ivanov, has his own private Fabergé Museum in Baden-Baden in ­Germany. 

Duelling decorations? As always, it’s competitive at the top.

artslife@thenational.ae

Updated: August 13, 2016 04:00 AM

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